Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bum! Da da duh duh da da duh duh doo doo doo doo

The NBA is losing its fan base, and the reason is broadcasting. They have been neglecting fans for the last five years and seem as if they will continue to do so in the future.

The reason I'm writing about this now (as opposed to in the last five years) is because of the way the playoffs are being broadcast. Every year everyone in the basketball world bitches about the NBA's bad ratings and how they get worse and worse no matter the quality of play. There have been many suggestions to "fix" the problem including widening the Court, changing the rules (done), and bombing the city of San Antonio (well, that one was mine).

The problem isn't the game - In 1978, the 44-38 Washington Bullets/47-35 Seattle Supersonics final (featuring Elvin Hayes, Bob Dandridge, Gus Williams, and Fred Brown!) drew a higher rating than four of the last five Finals. The problem, in fact, is that the NBA (and ABC) have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to broadcast basketball. No one there seems to get that broadcasting at a reasonable time, on network television, especially on weekends, gets good ratings. It also gets fans. It is so. fucking. simple.

The NBA's rationale for late night games is that they'll get the "prime time" audience on the West Coast. However, the NFL doesn't give two shits if people on the West Coast have to watch the game early, and it doesn't seem to be hurting their ratings. I bet some people actually like that games are early out there (I would). Because of playoff games starting so late, kids on the East Coast probably don't even know what the hell is going on in the NBA but are already nagging their parents to get them Tomlinsonian visors for Pop Warner or an Eli Manning Fathead.

I think part of the misunderstanding is the result of the retirement of Jordan - it obfuscated the real problem because everyone in the NBA has attributed the drop in popularity to a sudden lack of a superstar. This is reflective of the philosophy of finding someone to blame whenever there's a difficult problem, and it's gotten a lot of people and businesses in a lot of trouble. In the old days, it was the motivation behind the lynch mob.

The retirement of MJ is only a small part of the problem. The real deal is that when the NBA went from NBC to ABC, the quality of coverage took a huge step backwards. Regular season and playoff games on network TV are now a rarity (only on weekends after Christmas, if ever), the announcing and production quality is worse (although they seem to pour money into kitschy camera angles and mod-art sets), and on a weeknights, it is impossible to watch the playoffs if you don't have a good cable package. Sadly, the suits at the NBA don't seem to appreciate is that there are a lot of people who don't. It's called the middle class. I'm one of them.

When I want to watch the playoffs during the week, I have to go down to a bar, which is fine, but I usually skip the late game (I start work at 7:30 a.m.) and I usually have to miss a game because it's on NBAtv, which no one in the world gets except for people in major metropolitan areas with $80/month cable packages, David Stern, and his houseservants.

Can you imagine an NFL playoff game being on NFLtv? Do you remember the furor that was provoked when Green Bay played the Cowboys in the regular season on NFLtv? I simply do not understand how the NBA can be so thoughtless.

Since we're in the playoffs, that's what I'll focus on. The NBC playoffs worked like this: Playoff tripleheaders on Saturdays and Sundays starting at 12:00 p.m. Doubledheaders starting around 3:00 p.m. (I think) when there were not enough teams to create a tripleheader. Marv Albert or Bob Costas on the play-by-play. I'm not positive but I believe the entire playoffs were on NBC (as opposed to TNT, whose broadcasts now feel like network games when compared to ESPN and ABC's shoddy, talking-head coverage).

The reason the NBA decided to get rid of NBC was simple: money. In 2002, NBC offered a paltry four-year, $1.3 billion offer to keep programming. ESPN/ABC/TNT responded with a six year, $4.6 billion offer which was signed.

You really can't blame the NBA. $3.3 billion is a lot of freaking money. And you can't even blame ESPN/ABC, who had the cash and used it. However, the actions immediately following the deal that both parties made to change the way basketball was broadcast deserve extreme, extensive criticism.

NBC had been broadcasting 33 regular-season games and between 20 and 40 postseason games per year. According to David Stern, the number of reduced network telecasts (now about 11, I believe) was at the NBA's request. They believed they would get a higher audience for a single game if they avoided the tripleheaders that NBC showed during the on regular season weekends and instead shifted primary coverage to cable with a single "pillar" game on the weekend. The logic behind this seems to be that one game is more of an "event" than three, and events are what get regular people (as opposed to fans) to watch basketball games. The cable was still there for the die-hards.

I realize that it makes theoretical sense. Big basketball fans probably make up only a small percentage of the group that contributes to the NBA's ratings. However, what Stern's businessman's perspective misses is the fact that all fans were once just regular people. There's a reason they got sucked in and a reason they are loyal - it's the product, stupid. Without broadcast coverage, a whole group of potential basketball fans is left by the wayside even if the current fans do tune in to cable coverage.

Trying to transform the product with the masses in mind can work if you keep the essential stuff there - the games. But the problem is, Stern took those away to try to effect a psychological change in the average, more passive fan. The arrogance behind this move is astonishing, when you think about it.

(By the way...Doesn't that sound great, a weekend tripleheader? Man, what I wouldn't do to sit down on a Saturday or Sunday and watch basketball all afternoon. Hard to believe that's what we used to have.)

The results of the move towards fewer games are the real reason for the slump in ratings, and that slump has been predictably disastrous. It correlates perfectly with the 2002 switch to fewer network games. From 2002 through 2006, the average ratings on broadcast television have dropped a full point (from 3.0 to 2.0), and playoff games have dropped two points (from 5.5 to 3.3).

(Remeber: Nielsen ratings measure the percentage of American households, so that's not a drop of two million viewers, it's a drop of six million.)

The drop in Finals ratings is perhaps the most instructive. NBC's worst year was the last year of its contract, 2002, when the Lakers swept the Nets. In that Finals (an abominable contest and one of only four sweeps since 1976), NBC drew a 10.2 rating. The ratings for the next five years (of ABC's coverage) were 6.5, 11.5, 8.2, 8.5, and 6.2 last year (the lowest recorded Finals rating in NBA history).

To give that some perspective, since 1976, there have been only eight Finals in which there was a Nielsen rating of less than ten (the equivalent of 30 million households if measured today). Four of them were in the first five years of the ABC contract.

NBA or ABC advocates would argue that Michael Jordan's retirement also correlates with the sudden drop in ratings. However, those who would blame MJ must remember that he retired in 1994, so we can look at how that affected the ratings during NBC coverage. The first season after Michael Jordan's first retirement, the Finals drew a respectable 12.4 rating. The next year, despite a sweep, the rating was 13.9.

That means that twice as many people tuned in to watch Shaq's Magic get swept by the Houston Rockets in 1995 (two lesser cities, from a TV perspective) than watched last year's finals. Did the '95 Finals present more "star power" than LeBron vs. Tim Duncan did last year? Was the game played in a more watchable way? No basketball fan could make the argument. The fact of the Magic/Houston sweep doubling the ratings of last year's Finals is hard to believe, blows the MJ argument out of the water, and if you care about basketball, is truly infuriating.

There's a simple lesson here: You can't increase the popularity of a sport by getting rid of TV time. The suits that made the boneheaded decision to do so badly hurt professional basketball and the effects of the decision will be felt for years to come. Games at night, games on cable, and especially games on NBAtv leave out some of the most important audiences of sports - kids, poor, lower and middle class people, people in the country, and people who enjoy sitting down all day on Sunday to watch sports (every other male in America).

I hate to see the sport I love take a backseat to football and baseball because of the NBA (or ABC) position that showing less games can coerce better ratings. If you want better ratings in the long term, you need growth, and if you want to grow a sport, there's only one way - attract fans.

I hope we haven't already lost the next generation.

As always, e-mail me at


Prolow said...

The thing is your totally right. Its bad when the pre and post game shows are arguably more entertaining than the majority of games on TNT. I don't understand while the league doesn't adopt some kind of flex scheduling like the nfl has in the last few weeks of the season. The national tv Portland Seattle games this year were inane and stupid, when this regular season was perhaps the most exciting one i can remember in my lifetime. Also the announcing teams are pretty poor for the most part. I think Reggie Miller might be the worst, but even my man Jeff Van Gundy has a hard time with half the names of the players in the league. Maybe if the suns lose and Steve Kerr gets fired I can at least have him back with Marv, making the late game much more tolerable.

James said...

Reggie Miller should have stayed on Lifetime.